Whether it’s old wives’ tales or misunderstood science, there are plenty of myths out there about how to treat or avoid the common cold.
The problem? Many of those gems of wisdom can actually make you sicker. Let’s separate the good advice from the tips that just might prolong your misery. What really works to help you get through a cold, and which advice should you avoid?
“A hot toddy is just the thing to get rid of the sniffles.” True or false?
That hot toddy (whiskey, lemon, and hot water) is not going to get rid of your cold. Hand sanitizers with alcohol may help destroy the cold virus on hands, but drinking alcohol doesn’t do the same. Alcohol dehydrates you. It dries your mucous membranes, causes discomfort, and makes it harder to fight the virus. A shot of alcohol might burn away a coating in your throat, but the resulting dehydration makes your cold last longer.
A better option: Drink plenty of fluids like water, orange juice, or mint tea. Keeping yourself hydrated will help you feel better. Good hydration helps clear congestion. When you’re sick, make sure you get eight cups of water a day. A better hydrated body helps the immune system stop the cold symptoms.
“Zinc can shorten the length of a cold.” True or false?
True, but use caution.
It’s recommended that you take zinc by mouth. Studies have shown that taking zinc supplements at the first signs of a cold can actually shorten the duration of symptoms by about a day and a half in adults. There may also be some benefits to taking zinc regularly.
However, there can be nasty side effects to taking zinc supplements. Zinc can leave a bad taste in your mouth and cause nausea. No beneficial effects are seen in children, so it’s not helpful for them.
Powering through the symptoms
“If you don’t treat the symptoms, your body will fight the cold faster.” True or false?
Some people advocate suffering through a runny nose, muscle aches, sore throat, and fever without taking any medications. However, this does not shorten a cold. The cold virus is replicating inside of your cells, and the mucus of a runny nose is not flushing it out. Rather, it just spreads the virus to other people.
A better option: Treat your symptoms and rest. Anti-inflammatory medications can help you get some rest and even prevent the spread of your cold to others. Take ibuprofen for fever and body aches, antihistamines for a runny nose, and a cough suppressant for a cough.
“Take a ton of vitamin C. That will cure anything!” True or false?
Somewhere in between.
Vitamin C has been said to fight everything from the common cold to cancer. After falling out of scientific fashion for years, newer research seems to show that vitamin C has little effect in preventing the onset of a cold or reducing its symptoms. The same study found that vitamin C may be beneficial, though, if you’re an athlete exposed to very cold temperatures.
A word of caution: Large doses of vitamin C may cause diarrhea. For people with iron-related conditions, vitamin C may enhance the absorption of iron and cause iron toxicity.
“Over-the-counter cold medicines are perfectly safe to take with other meds.” True or false?
Drug interactions can occur even with over-the-counter (OTC) medications. If you take a decongestant that includes drugs like pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine, or oxymetazoline in a tablet, liquid, or nasal spray, there can be some serious side effects. OTC drugs can cause severe interactions if you are on certain antidepressants, too. And according to the Mayo Clinic, anyone with high blood pressure should also be careful of decongestants.
A better option: Check the warning labels on cold medications, especially combination medications. If you take other medications regularly or have other health conditions, be sure to ask the pharmacist or your doctor about possible interactions.
“I swear by Echinacea. It can get rid of my cold every time!” True or false?
Still, some people with allergies to plants like ragweed have shown strong allergic reactions to Echinacea. Also, some preparations may be contaminated with molds and other allergens. It’s important to be careful taking herbal supplements, especially if you have known allergies to pollen and weeds. Herbs are not regulated by governmental health agencies, so buy from a reputable source.
“Grandma’s chicken soup is a cure-all for any cold.” True or false?
Many cultures swear by the curative power of chicken soup, and it looks like this myth is true. A study from 2000 shows that chicken soup may have anti-inflammatory properties that help ease cold symptoms. Besides, warm liquids and protein will certainly help you stay hydrated. The heat of warm soup will loosen congestion, as well.
But watch out. Many canned chicken soups are loaded with sodium. Foods with a high salt content can actually dehydrate you, making you feel worse when you’re fighting a cold. Try low-salt brands or have someone kind make you some homemade broth.
The best tips for getting over your cold are to drink plenty of fluids and get plenty of rest.
- Water, juice, clear broth, and warm water with lemon and honey can really help loosen congestion. Tea is fine, but the decaffeinated kinds are best.
- A saltwater gargle can help ease a sore throat better than a lot of medications.
- Saline drops can reduce stuffiness and congestion without the side effects of decongestants.
- Humidity helps. Take a steamy shower or use a well-cleaned humidifier in small doses.